2003 Nov 22 – 28: Hobart to Nelson, Tasman Sea Passage

On November 22, the Hobart Customs officer had kindly arrived early to check us out, enabling us to take on 1000 litres of diesel fuel and make a 0930 hours departure. After crossing Storm Bay, we rounded Cape Raoul, its spectacular outline silhouetted against the blue sky. By lunch time we had furled the reacher and were passing between Tasman Island and Cape Pillar, some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in the world, threatened on our port side by dolorite needles and to starboard by the spectacular island on the southeast corner of Tasmania. Soon we were making 13 knots boatspeed in 27 knots of wind. We averaged 10 knots for the next several hours under full main and jib with winds in the low 20’s on our starboard quarter. This was Pete’s first Tasman Sea crossing and the word he chose to describe his experience was, “Sen-SAY-tional!”

An albatross joined us just before sunset and glided with us all the way to New Zealand, bringing an aura of calm over a turbulent seascape, spinning great serene spirals around and around us.

We motorsailed in light winds for most of the second day, to maintain our boat speed, but occasional squalls brought us winds in the mid 20’s. Black and white storm petrels danced above the waves around us, and several shearwaters joined the albatross in patrolling our skies.

After dinner on the third day, Steve entered into the log, “Still making 200nm/day, 469nm since departing Hobart, traveling at 8.35kn over the bottom; 680nm remaining to Cape Farewell”.

Freshening breezes arrived on day three, with showers and rainbows. We were reaching comfortably under full sail and making good speed towards New Zealand, all systems working smoothly. Then a whirring sound came from the direction of the cockpit. The Lewmar mainsheet electric winch had self-activated. Pete quickly took the line out of the self-furler, while Steve flipped off the circuit breaker – whew, no damage done! During our passage from New Zealand to New Caledonia in year 2000, our other electric winch controller had failed in a similar fashion.

Early on the sixth day of our passage from Hobart, Tasmania to Nelson, New Zealand, gale force winds had been blowing in the mid to high 30’s for 24 hours, and the seas were continuing to build but not yet breaking dangerously. The true wind angle was 130 degrees and the angle of the seas similar, so when the crest of one of the largest five to six meter waves broke close astern, ADAGIO received either a noisy strike on the starboard quarter, or a cascade into the cockpit.

The forecast of light winds on the third day had turned into something very different. The stationary high west of Tasmania was ridging in over the Tasman Sea, and a low to the south was moving away from us towards the east. A weak low east of the Australian mainland was expected to move towards the southeast and cross New Zealand’s North Island, but it had been joined by a trio of lows that were now tracking in a more southerly direction, increasing the pressure gradient between the two weather systems, and thus increasing the speed of our winds and the height of our waves.

While Dorothy rested off watch below, Steve and Pete consulted on our heavy weather options before Steve went off watch, looking forward to maybe six hours of sleep. Our watch schedule of three hours on and six hours off was a huge improvement over our normal four hour rotation when just the two of us are aboard. More important was being able to turn the watch over to a seasoned skipper like Peter Cook. This allowed both of us to not only rest but to get some real sleep knowing that we could rely upon Pete to handle anything that arose on his watch – only waking us if sail handling demanded more hands on deck.

We were not having “heavy weather” at this point in the passage. Rather the discussion about tactics revolved around what-ifs. What if the seas continued to build to a point where managing real breaking seas became an issue, say when ADAGIO would be crossing from off-soundings onto the New Zealand continental shelf? Because the winds had been exceeding previous forecasts each day for the past three days, Steve suspected that either the high to the west or the low to the north was moving faster than expected, creating a squash zone. If that scenario developed, we would have less drama if we adopted defensive tactics early before working on deck became more difficult.

Wind wasn’t a worry, nor were large waves. The concern was whether or not the waves would begin breaking such that tons of water would begin cascading down the wave faces. ADAGIO hadn’t seen such breaking waves before, so it was a comfort to have Pete’s experience aboard. From years of Sydney-Hobart and Melbourne-Hobart races Pete was comfortable that the crest-breaks slamming into our starboard side wouldn’t become actual wave breaks for some time, and before that time Farewell Spit on the northwest corner of the South Island of New Zealand should be giving us protection from the seas.

At noon on the fourth day we received an Inmarsat-C message from our ace weather router Rick Shema. Rick advised us to slow down and sail as close to the wind as conditions permitted in order to position ADAGIO as far south as possible. The winds were forecast to back to the SSE and increase, then become more southerly in direction on the fifth day and increase further to 30 knots, gusting to 34. The low to the northwest of New Zealand was forecast to continue deepening and move SE towards Nelson.

Sailing south of the rhumb line would add 100 nautical miles to our passage, but would position the anticipated larger seas on our starboard quarter after we turned northeast onto the final leg to Cape Farewell. Had we continued on the great circle route the new stronger winds and seas would have been most uncomfortable on our starboard beam. Rick suggested a 7.5kn “speed limit” until we reached an aim point of 42 30 S 165 00 E where we could bear off towards Cape Farewell. We trimmed sail for a new autopilot course of 45 degrees apparent wind angle, then confirmed the new course and speed limit via Sat-C back to Rick. We were sending position and local weather reports to Rick every twelve hours, so he could monitor our progress relative to the developing weather situation. The payoff would be well worth it, but the new more upwind course meant a day and a half of increasingly frequent wave slams on our starboard hull.

On the evening of the fourth day, we were expecting the wind to increase to 25 to 30 knots over the next twelve hours. ADAGIO’s boat speed had been a steady 10 knots while the wind had backed to a true wind angle of 85 degrees, and the seas were also moving closer to beam-on angles. Reducing boat speed by a knot or so would make the ride more comfortable, so Steve put the second reef in the mainsail.

On the morning of the fifth day, Dorothy’s log entry read, “True wind speed is 24 to 27 knots, apparent wind angle is 62°, barometer is down to 1010, rainbows to leeward and sunrise ahead”. It looked like the winds were reading Rick Shema’s script so far. The seas had built from 3 metres to around 5 metres, occasionally slamming into the hull broadside or cascading up the front windows and over the top of our coachroof.

Just after noon on the fifth day, we reached our aim point and were able to alter course towards our destination. The boat motion was much improved, except for occasional underwing slams. The barometer had fallen 10 mb in 24 hours. The true wind speed was steady in the low 30’s. Occasionally a wave would waterfall into the cockpit, draining away quickly through the large scuppers. The waves were the shape of snow-capped mountains and beautiful, parading past. One wave after the other slowly approached our starboard stern, loomed overhead, and finally lifted our stern and gracefully passed beneath us, rumbling and roaring away between our twin hulls.

We had left the reacher set on its furling gear in anticipation of the forecast lightening winds. At watch change Steve told Pete that he wished we had stowed the reacher earlier when the winds first rose above 25 knots. We definitely did not want it to start unfurling now. We had been expecting the winds to go light, rather than to gale force – that was the logic for leaving the reacher rigged. Just five minutes later a small section near the top of the reacher escaped the furl and began loudly flogging in the wind.

Steve changed course, steering ADAGIO as close to dead downwind as was safe, to minimize the chance of seas breaking over the decks. Pete and Dorothy went forward to lower and stow the sail. In the excitement, Dorothy forgot to uncoil the halyard and make it free for running and was left with a rats nest of line. While she unsnarled it, Pete was unable to hold the wildly snaking sail in the increasing winds. When the halyard was let go, the furled sail flew out spectacularly to leeward. When Pete cut the tail of the halyard free of the jammer, the sail sank beneath the boat and trailed between Adagio’s hulls from its furling drum.

Dorothy looked astern and saw a huge wave and black sky. Thinking a squall was upon us, she cried, “Cut it loose!” Steve and Pete conferred through an opening front window port, then Pete calmly asked Dorothy to go forward and tie a rolling hitch around the sail and bring the line back to the windlass which hauled in the sail. A second line was tied around the sail and brought back to the second windlass. Steve operated the two windlasses from inside at the nav station. Pete and Dorothy alternated the lines from windlass to windlass, slowly retrieving the sail aboard over the top of the forebeam, removed the sheets and stowed it in the starboard bow locker. Lots of adrenaline was spilled, but we saved our $10,000 sail from the deep. Soon after this excitement, the true wind speed rose to the high 30’s, gusting to 42. The seas were rough under a starry sky. Some quite large wave slams boomed at midnight, during Steve’s watch, exploding just a few inches from Dorothy as she dozed on the master berth.

The winds were forecast to decrease during the sixth day but remained in the upper 30’s for another 24 hours. Before dinner, Pete found that we were wallowing a bit in the wave troughs, so he unfurled the jib to increase our boat speed and thus the flow of the water over our rudders [no flow, no steer]. Every 30 minutes or so a big wave slammed against our weather hull.

During Pete’s night watch, the sea state had reached the point where we needed to move away from the wave crests more quickly. The autopilot course had ADAGIO angling down the wave faces, so Pete switched to hand steering for a while – “straight down the fall line”, we used to say when skiing. Soon he bested ADAGIO’s old 20 knot speed record, entering into the log, “Cruising nicely, surfing down waves, touched 21.8 knots, gusting 48 knots. Lots of rain squalls visible on radar. Sen-SAY-tional!” Out in the cockpit, two-metre high geysers shot up through the underwing scuppers, followed by a couple of waterfalls into the cockpit.

After we had passed north of the aptly named Cape Foulwind in rain squalls, the wind veered 30 degrees, then backed 100 degrees. We motorsailed to get ourselves out of the increasingly rough seas caused by wind against current.

The wind was right on the nose at 30 knots, as we headed towards Cape Farewell, so we furled all sails. A mainsail batten jammed forward, beneath the feeder, so we could not completely furl the sail. No worries, as the sail was mostly lowered. The wind direction changed again to the northeast, now a nasty wind-against-seas, so we bashed to windward under power. The seas finally decreased as we rounded six miles beyond the end of Cape Farewell.

Western Tasman Bay was placid, as it is protected from the prevailing winds by the Tasman Mountains and the Arthur Ranges. With a sunset flaming from behind Abel Tasman Park to starboard, dolphins played on our bow waves.

The night entry into the port of Nelson was straight forward thanks to excellent navigation marks and up to date charts. Officials from Customs and Agriculture met us at the Customs dock at midnight. They seemed in no rush, in spite of the late hour. After we had been welcomed into New Zealand, we treated ourselves to a congratulatory bottle of red wine then happily ended our watch system and fell into bed, six and a half days and 1300 nautical miles from Hobart.

The Tasman Sea is fickle and unpredictable, with highs ridging in from the west, lows passing to the south, lows coming down from the northwest, lows following highs from the west, and fronts approaching from the west and the south. The frequency with which the forecasts changed reflects the complexity of the weather. Rick Shema picked up the deepening and accelerating low well before it began to show on New Zealand and Australian surface analysis charts. Just one example of where an expert weather consultant can help make life aboard more comfortable.

ADAGIO gave her crew a comfortable ride through the Roaring Forties, and provided us with a safe platform for sail handling and working on deck. The seas were high but mostly regular. The motion of the boat was lurching only with infrequent wave slams onto the windward hull, so we were not being thrown around the boat. ADAGIO sails flat in these conditions, not heeling to wind gusts. The largest beam-on wave slams displaced the boat slightly sideways, but ADAGIO’s long waterline and powerful rudders helped the autopilot keep her well under control through the worst of the weather. Regarding how ADAGIO handles the seastate Pete said, “She is comfortable, much more comfortable than larger monohulls. And she is much better behaved, not the slightest tendency to broach when running down the wave faces. ADAGIO’s autopilot should be able to steer her in just about anything”.

Having achieved a safe and fast passage, we were humbled by the reminder that 350 years ago the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman made the same passage, giving his name to Tasman Island, our point of departure, and to lovely Tasman Bay where we completed our voyage.

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